Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Synopsis

Miracles of Book and Body is the first book to explore the intersection of two key genres of sacred literature in medieval Japan: sutras, or sacred Buddhist texts, and setsuwa, or "explanatory tales," used in sermons and collected in written compilations. For most of East Asia, Buddhist sutras were written in classical Chinese and inaccessible to many devotees. How, then, did such devotees access these texts? Charlotte D. Eubanks argues that the medieval genre of "explanatory tales" illuminates the link between human body (devotee) and sacred text (sutra). Her highly original approach to understanding Buddhist textuality focuses on the sensual aspects of religious experience and also looks beyond Japan to explore pre-modern book history, practices of preaching, miracles of reading, and the Mahayana Buddhist "cult of the book."

Excerpt

Sometime in the late 1190s the Japanese Buddhist monk Myōe (1173– 1232) decided that a shaved head was not a reliable enough symbol of a person’s devotion or true intentions. Thus, as a sign of his sincerity, he picked up a dagger and sawed off his right ear, spattering blood over the various ritual implements arrayed before him. According to his disciple Kikai, Myōe’s logic in choosing to cut off his ear was as follows: “If he plucked out an eye, he would grieve over not being able to see the scriptures. If he cut off his nose, snot would dribble on the scriptures. If he severed a hand, he would be in agony over forming the mudras. But if he cut off an ear, he would still be able to hear.” Myōe’s guiding logic in choosing which portion of his body to damage pivoted on the material reality of his physical access to the sutras: seeing them, holding them, keeping them clean, and hearing them.

By marking himself in such a drastic way, Myōe hoped to accomplish two things. First, he wanted his permanent, though intangible, internal commitments reflected on the external reality of his physical body, available for all to see for as long as his body should last. Second, he believed that by altering his physicality in such a painful way, he might also be able to alter the sacred writings of Buddhism. He believed profoundly, perhaps even fanatically, in a correlation between body and text. Following the incident, Myōe avidly and repeatedly searched the Buddhist sutras, looking for lists of beings in attendance at the historical Buddha’s sermons and hoping to find his name recorded there.

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